Feds take over civil lawsuit against Hanford contractor

By Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldSeptember 30, 2012 

The federal government is taking over a civil lawsuit filed against former Hanford contractor CH2M Hill Hanford Group and its parent corporation for alleged timecard fraud.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Eastern Washington by former CH2M Hill worker Carl Schroeder on behalf of the United States under the False Claims Act. The act allows individuals to sue on behalf of the government and collect a portion of any damages awarded.

Schroeder is one of eight former CH2M Hill workers who have pleaded guilty in the same federal court to conspiracy to commit timecard fraud.

They admitted to claiming a full eight hours of work when they were assigned to overtime shifts after their regular workdays or work weeks ended, even though they worked fewer than eight hours of overtime.

The Department of Justice has notified the court that it plans to file a motion to dismiss Schroeder from the False Claims Act civil lawsuit he filed because of his criminal conduct in the case, the Department of Justice said Friday.

The False Claims Act bars any whistleblower filing claims from receiving damages if he or she is convicted of criminal conduct in the case.

Schroeder filed the claim in federal court in 2009, but the case has been sealed until recently, when Judge Lonny Suko ordered three of 22 documents in the case unsealed. Schroeder pleaded guilty in November 2011 for falsifying his timecard as part of a conspiracy with other workers.

The civil lawsuit against CH2M Hill says it knowingly presented false claims to the Department of Energy for overtime payment for more than a decade. DOE reimburses CH2M Hill for the wages it pays to workers on the project it manages, the Hanford tank farms.

The tank farms store 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste in underground tanks until they can be treated for disposal. The waste is left from the past production of weapons plutonium at Hanford.

The lawsuit also accuses CH2M Hill of "upcharging" in a second way by diverting routine work that should have been performed on regular shifts to overtime shifts, during which workers received time-and-a-half or double-time pay.

Almost all of the 400 to 500 CH2M Hill employees who participated in upcharging had the consent of supervisors and other management, the lawsuit alleges.

"These practices were known, condoned and encouraged by the hourly workers' supervisors, managers and directors at CH2," the lawsuit said. "The practices were so widespread that they can only be characterized as the official employment policy of CH2."

Schroeder also alleges that in May 2008 he was assigned by his supervisor to leave Hanford to repair the home air conditioner of another CH2M Hill supervisor and that supervisor's neighbor during work hours.

After buying a part and doing the repairs, Schroeder returned to Hanford and was paid as if he had spent his shift working at the nuclear reservation, according to Schroeder.

CH2M Hill made Schroeder a scapegoat for timecard fraud, saying the problem was limited to a few "bad apples," when in fact the upcharging was the result of a deliberate policy used by more than 400 hourly workers at the tank farms, Schroeder claims in court documents.

As a result of CH2M Hill's claims, Schroeder was fired from his job working for the current tank farm contractor, Washington River Protection Solutions, which took over management of the Hanford tank farms when CH2M Hill's contract expired in 2008, he alleged in the lawsuit.

Washington River Protection Solutions is named as a defendant in the lawsuit and is accused by Schroeder of discharging him in retaliation for reporting the timecard violations.

The decision by the Department of Justice to intervene in the False Claims Act civil case brought by a former employee who has pleaded guilty to defrauding the government is disappointing, said John Corsi, CH2M Hill vice president for public relations.

CH2M Hill brought up concerns about timecard practices at the Hanford tank farms to the federal government as early as 2004 and asked for help in investigating the matter, Corsi said. Since then it has cooperated fully with the government's investigation and will continue to do so, he said.

"We are optimistic than an amicable and fair resolution can be reached in this matter once the true facts are known and understood," he said.

In the civil lawsuit, Schroeder has asked that CH2M Hill be required to pay triple the actual damages sustained by the United States plus civil penalties. He also is requesting attorneys' fees and reinstatement to his job with double back pay.

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